Another season, another coach for Pittsburgh.
Dave Wannstedt was the coach in 2010 before he was fired. Todd Graham was the coach last season before he left the Panthers in a lurch by unexpectedly leaving for the Arizona State coaching job. The new coach is Paul Chryst, who had been Wisconsin's offensive coordinator.
Chryst comes aboard just as Pitt is preparing to leave its longtime home in the Big East for the ACC. This is the Panthers' last season in the Big East before they move on to a tougher league.
Their last season in the Big East should be OK; they're not going to win the league unless a couple of other teams fall on their collective faces. Still, they should finish in the top half of the league and have the talent to beat any of their league foes. But there are concerns, most notably on defense.
Last season: 6-7 overall, 4-3 in Big East
Coach: Paul Chryst (1st season)
Returning starters (minimum 7 starts last season): Offense (8)– TE Hubie Graham, TB Ray Graham, WR Cameron Saddler, G Ryan Schlieper, WR Mike Shanahan, WR Devin Street, QB Sal Sunseri, C Ryan Turnley. Defense (4)– SS Jason Hendricks, FS Jared Holley, LB Todd Thomas, CB K'Waun Williams. Special teams (2)– K Kevin Harper, P Matt Yoklic.
Fast fact: Pitt has had six head coaches since December 2010. Dave Wannstedt was fired that December and Phil Bennett coached the bowl game. Michael Haywood was hired that December but was fired less a month later after being arrested on assault charges. Todd Graham coached the Panthers last season, but he left in December for the Arizona State job. Keith Patterson coached the team in the bowl game. Paul Chryst is the new coach.
Chryst's hiring means a return to a pro-style attack after one season in Graham's version of the spread. The talent on hand is much better-suited for a pro-set offense, especially senior QB Tino Sunseri.
Sunseri had a solid first season as a starter in 2010, then struggled some last season; Graham's offense is at its best when the quarterback is a running threat, and that's not Sunseri. He is more effective when he can use play-action, and that will happen this season.
The biggest positive for this offense would be the return of TB Ray Graham, who ran for 958 yards and nine TDs despite missing the final five games with a torn ACL. Graham also is a good receiver and should be a weapon out of the backfield on swing passes. But he missed spring ball while rehabbing. Backup Isaac Bennett has talent and showed it during spring practice. Touted true freshman Rushel Shell also could see time; he is the leading rusher in Pennsylvania high school history and owns the national high school record with 39 consecutive 100-yard games. He also is from the same high school (Hopewell, in Aliquippa, Pa.) as Tony Dorsett.
Sunseri has thrown for 2,500 yards in each of the past two seasons and should reach that level again. He is a long way from "star" level, but he proved as a sophomore that he can be a steady quarterback who can get the job done.
Pitt has perhaps the best receiving duo in the league in Devin Street and Mike Shanahan, and speedy Cameron Saddler is a nice option as the No. 3 receiver. Chryst made excellent use of his tight ends at Wisconsin, and that should be good news for senior Hubie Graham, who transferred to Pitt from Illinois and caught 28 passes for the Panthers last season. Graham isn't the best blocker, but he does have good hands and can get downfield; Chryst definitely will find ways to use him.
The line had trouble adjusting to the new blocking schemes last season, and now have to change again. A positive along the line is that oft-injured G Chris Jacobson received a sixth year of eligibility from the NCAA; he and C Ryan Turnley give the Panthers a physical tandem in the middle of the line.
New coordinator Dave Huxtable had been linebacker coach at Wisconsin, but he has coordinator experience and is a veteran hand. There is a scheme change on this side of the ball as well, as the Panthers are going back to the 4-3 after one season in a sort of hybrid 3-4.
The defensive line is a huge concern. The lone returning starter is Aaron Donald, a good pass rusher who was an end in the 3-4. He will be a tackle for Huxtable, but his lack of size (he's 6 feet and 270 pounds) could mean he wears down in the middle of the line. Pitt needs some inexperienced players to come through up front, such as Es T.J. Clemmings and Bryan Murphy and T K.K. Mosley-Smith. Senior E Shayne Hale was a touted linebacker recruit in the 2008 class who hasn't lived up to billing, and this obviously is his last shot.
Speaking of linebacker, Pitt is in better shape there. Junior Dan Mason should vie for all-league honors, assuming he is all the way back from a knee injury that sidelined him last season. Junior Shane Gordon and sophomores Todd Thomas and Eric Williams also will be important in the rotation.
The secondary is the strongest part of the defense. FS Jarred Holley is the standout. Junior K'Waun Williams should become one of the Big East's best cornerbacks this season. The other starting corner likely will be sophomore Cullen Christian, a Pittsburgh native who sat out last season after transferring from Michigan.
Huxtable prefers an aggressive defense, and the back seven should be fine with that style, assuming someone up front can provide a pass rush.
K Kevin Harper and P Matt Yoklic are the best duo in the Big East. Yoklic, a former walk-on, was second in the league with a 41.2-yard average. Harper was 21-of-31 on field goals; five of his misses were from at least 47 yards.
Pitt's coverage teams were excellent last season, ranking in the top 20 in both kickoff return and punt return defense. But the return units could use an upgrade.
Pitt plays two FCS teams, so it must get to seven wins to become bowl-eligible. Two of its five nonconference games are on the road, against Notre Dame and Buffalo.
Three of the first four games at home, including a visit from Virginia Tech. But the only road game in that span is against Cincinnati, which should be a good gauge as to how each will fare in the Big East race.
One positive: There are home games against Louisville and Rutgers, teams expected to contend for the league title. But there also is a road game against USF, another team that should contend.
Pitt definitely has the overall talent for a top-three finish in the league. But as everyone knows, it's not always about talent.
The back-and-forth with the scheme changes has made it difficult on the players, and there are enough concerns with this team – most notably along the defensive line – to question whether a top-three finish is possible.
Let's call for a fourth-place finish instead, but with a fifth consecutive bowl bid. The last time that happened for the Panthers? Try 1979-83, when the Panthers were in the midst of a run that saw them make nine consecutive postseason appearances.
The recruiting side
Average recruiting ranking for past five years: 43rd nationally
The buzz: Thanks to yet another coaching change, Paul Chryst had his work cut out for him down the stretch in recruiting. But he and his staff still were able to put together the No. 3 recruiting class in the Big East by signing local stars such as RB Rushel Shell, LB Deaysean Rippy and OL Adam Bisnowaty. Thrown in U.S. Army All-American QB Chad Voytik, and a top-heavy class certainly should have some immediate contributors this season. – Mike Farrell, Rivals.com
LB Todd Thomas. Thomas was solid as a redshirt freshman in 2011, making 47 tackles and adding three pass breakups, 2.5 tackles for loss, four quarterback hurries and an interception. He should become even more productive this season in a defense expected to be more aggressive than it was last season. Thomas has good speed – he was a safety at New Berlin (N.Y.) Milford Academy, where he was the No. 4 prep school prospect in the nation – and playmaking ability.
For more on Pittsburgh throughout the season, check out pantherlair.com
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